The music star documentary is, by now, such a well-known medium of documentary filmmaking that it has its own name “The Rockumentary”. Standouts like Some Kind of Monster chronicle the production of Metallica’s polarising album St Anger, while more recent fare like Questlove’s Oscar award-winning Summer of Soul shines a light on the overlooked 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Music has always provided a very interesting ground for deeper analysis in film. However, one recent documentary pulls from an unlikely source and springs from it incredible depths and observations on how people consume music. This is Penny Lane’s 2021 documentary Listening to Kenny G.
One of the more unassuming entries in HBO’s recent Music Box docuseries, Listening to Kenny G is a journey through the life and controversies of “smooth jazz” pioneering saxophonist Kenny G. The movie uses this unassuming (some might even argue boring) core to dive into an analysis of the entire music spectrum, from criticism, to privilege, to legacy, and cultural exchange. It achieves this not only by interrogating the music of Kenny G on a cultural and mechanical level, but also by shining a light on thoughtful criticism of the man and his music.
‘Listening to Kenny G’ Makes the Unassuming Fantastical
In making documentaries, there are two ways to effectively engage the audience, either taking a story that is immediately interesting, or taking a story that initially seems boring or standard, and pulling unseen depths. At a first glance, Kenny G as a musician is not an immediately gripping personality to frame a documentary around. At no point was there some scandal (a few controversies sure), no coke habit gone out of control, no huge band split, no grand self-destructive spiral. The man was successful of course, but success isn’t immediately interesting. The legacy of popular music is filled with success stories that are just mundane. However, the documentary doesn’t make a mountain out of a molehill, it doesn’t pretend that the story it’s telling is some operatic tragic masterpiece. Instead, it uses this unassuming foundation to really interrogate the man himself and the world surrounding him.
Kenny G is a saxophonist, most often a soprano saxophonist. Interestingly he is not a vocalist, he is entirely an instrumentalist, and none of his most well-known songs contains any words at all. This itself is certainly unusual in the popular music sphere but what makes the man especially interesting is that not only was he very successful despite being just an instrumentalist, but he’s debatably responsible for his own genre of music, “smooth jazz”. Now being responsible for a whole new genre of music seems like a golden nugget for any documentarian, but the filmmakers are quite smart about using it – rather than spin a myth, it instead interrogates the music on a mechanical level and puts it in a cultural context.
Kenny G Is One of This Documentary’s Best Features
One of the best features of the documentary is Kenny G himself, present for most of the interviews and humble enough to actually show the filmmakers how the sound is achieved. He brings the filmmakers into his studio and actually shows the recording software that he uses to give his playing that unique “smooth jazz” sound, even pointing out the exact places where the reverberations, echoes, and alternate takes are introduced. It takes something that could be very easily hand-waved away as being the nebulously created result of unique talent and brings it down to a tactile sense, revealing the man behind the curtain and drawing attention to him. It makes the fantastical normal again, which is so unique in its genre, that it paradoxically makes it interesting again.
This format allows for big questions about why this music is so popular and never hand waves it away with buzzwords, always backing it up with hard evidence. Why was Kenny G’s music so popular in offices and in certain radio stations? Because it’s not abrasive to anyone’s ear and an absence of lyrics makes it much easier to score other activities. Why is Kenny G’s music so popular in countries like China? Because the scales he uses (and doesn’t use) in his writing are familiar to listeners in the country. By being so open to the analysis of his music and being in touch with the history of the genre, the documentary can unpack this music and its legacy in ways that others of its type don’t even attempt.
‘Listening to Kenny G’ Knows Its History
The film is very aware of both the history of “real” traditional jazz and the new smooth jazz created by its focus star, drenching itself in a sense of time and place with clips and music videos from the era that Kenny G became famous in. Again, it would’ve been even easier to mythologize this era, harkening back to some “forgotten” era of real music where stars were formed from nothing, but again the documentary and even Kenny G himself bring this era down to actual reality. Taking the idealized vision of how the music industry wanted the audience to see it, and showing the inner workings behind it. How company heads would pick and choose musicians and producers to trawl through different sounds to find one that resonated with audiences. It makes the story of Kenny G’s rise feel more real because it shows all the mistakes and ill-advised rebrands that predated the eventual discovery of the sound.
The film further demythologizes the creation of smooth jazz by bringing in competent and well-reasoned critics to come in and interrogate every part of it. The documentary could’ve easily left these critics out or positioned them in a purely oppositional fashion, but it gives them ample time to explain their misgivings with the music. These historians and musical scholars connect smooth jazz to the greater canon of jazz in order to explain why it seems to gather so much disdain from the community. One scholar points out that while traditional jazz largely consists of a tune that is passed through an entire band in an almost “conversational” way, Kenny G’s smooth jazz is focused on one person’s practised melody.
The fact that these criticisms are voiced and highlighted in the first place speaks to a deeper maturity and interrogation of its subject. Allowing the subject that the documentary is about to be so thoroughly dressed down by his contemporaries sets it apart from other documentaries that love to mythologize either the titanic rise of its stars or meteoric falls.
‘Listening to Kenny G’ Feels Honest
One of the usual goals of any documentary is to show the world as it is, to document a particular place, person, or span of time. However, the goal of most movies is also to entertain, and the idea of portraying an absolutely unbiased reality is pretty abstract the second the filmmaker puts somebody down in front of a camera. With that in mind Listening to Kenny G feels decidedly more honest than other documentaries.
A semi-frequent moment in modern documentaries is showing the “set-up” of an interview. The opening moments in which the director and interviewee figure out the framing of the scene, often with input from the interview subject about what they should be doing, how they should be portrayed, and what would be good to show. This footage is usually removed from the finished documentary unless the director has a particular agenda in terms of certain individuals. Documentaries will often utilize this footage in order to make a particular subject appear vain, controlling, or otherwise untrustworthy, such as Tiger King’s portrayal of Carol Baskin and LuLaRich’s portrayal of DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham. The audience is made to understand that these people are attempting to control their own image and that anything they say should be considered inauthentic.
Interestingly this same editing trick is used only when Kenny G himself is talking in the documentary, but it feels less to disparage his character and more to further the film’s goals of stripping away all pretense and showing the man as honestly as possible. The set dressing of shots, his comment that a moment would look more ‘iconic’ if he was walking with his saxophone case, a lot of the inner workings of the documentary is laid bare for the audience to see. It feels less like the director is trying to guide the eye to a particular opinion or perspective and more like they’re deliberately showing their cards. Similar to how it dissects music to its technical bits and pieces, it also dissects the concept of the music documentary itself.
‘Listening to Kenny G’ Balances Criticism With Heart
One of the things that set the documentary apart from others of its type is its ability to criticize its main subject, but it is also infused with a love of music that makes even the ruthless disdain of Kenny G’s critics feel like it has more meaning behind it. When the scholars that the movie brings on dig into Kenny G and his music, it’s always framed with a love of traditional jazz and a sort of protectiveness and rightful annoyance that his popularity has eclipsed the genre they love. This is reflected when the filmmakers are interviewing Kenny G as well, the man’s been absurdly successful, but it’s clear when he speaks of his music and music in general that there is still a deep love and appreciation for everything that has come before him. It gives the movie an entirely different atmosphere to other cases, both sides are approaching the issue with good intentions, and both sides want people to appreciate a love of music.
One of the most famous and controversial events that Kenny G has ever been a part of was his “duet” with famed deceased jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Kenny G played a recording of Louis Armstrong singing What a Wonderful World while he played an accompaniment on saxophone. The vitriolic response in the music criticism community was immediate. However, when Kenny G himself is capable of explaining his concept for the duet and what inspired him to attempt it, it feels more like a conversation rather than having one dominant answer. Kenny G believed that he just wanted to pay tribute to the singer himself, while others believed that the performance was a “defilement” of the “sacred” work of Louis Armstrong. The movie presents both sides with ample room to explain their positions, and in the end, both feel like they have points in their favor, treating the audience with enough respect to decide for themselves.
It is this tactful handling of big topics and huge spheres of music criticism with an analytical mindset that makes the documentary so enlightening, even if you don’t know anything about Kenny G, or don’t even care about jazz or smooth jazz for that matter. Like any good documentary, it sucks the viewers in and gives them insight into a topic they might not care about, and since it does so in an intelligent (and humorous) fashion, the audience may find themselves learning and thinking about things they may never have thought of before. With its even-handed and balanced approach to its topics, it forces the audience to think critically about how they think of music and what they might love or hate.
When a documentary challenges you to think like this, it has a greater power than others of its type. It proves that even in a seemingly “safe” genre like smooth jazz, there are always deeper meanings to be delved into, and even in individuals like Kenny G, there are interesting tales to be told.